Lithgow’s Lear Moved Me

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John Lithgow as Lear and Clarke Peters as the Earl of Gloucester. Photo by Joan Marcus
John Lithgow as Lear and Clarke Peters as the Earl of Gloucester. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 As a longtime admirer of John Lithgow — from his performance in The Changing Room at Long Wharf in 1972 to today — I was looking forward to his King Lear in the current production of the tragedy now playing in Central Park through Aug. 17.

John Lithgow as King Lear. Photo by Joan Marcus
John Lithgow as King Lear. Photo by Joan Marcus

He always bring enormous humanity to his roles, whether they are heroes are villains, so much so that we sometimes like characters that we should not.

His Lear lives up to my expectations. This is a King who seemingly exhibits the early signs of dementia — where there are many moments of lucidity followed by erratic behavior and actions.  He is slowly losing his ability to process information.  Anyone approaching the later years of life or knowing someone who is — must recognize how terrifying that is and must, therefore, sympathize with his inability or refusal to recognize what is happening.

Before going into details of the acting and directing, the terrific set, lighting, sound and costumes must be acknowledged.  This is a stage with minimal props, yet John Lee Beatty has created the perfect scenic design — a wall that appears to be metallic with an abstract pattern.  He’s added the thrust stage and two wooden bridges that move on and off as needed — one on each side.  Lighting designer Jeff Crotter has used that background to create a variety of effects — moving us from day to night to storm. With the lighting and the sound design by Acme Sound Partners we can feel the rain of the pelting storm and want to duck as lightening seems to strike us.  In addition, three metallic panels are used to good effect as drums.  The costumes by Susan Hilferty put as firmly into a medieval frame of mind.

So let’s talk about the actors and the work of director Daniel Sullivan. Sullivan gives us a clear, accessible production.  Even without the synopsis, it is easy to follow. It is also a very complete version of the play, running over 3 hours. Yet, in many respects, it is a King Lear that left me unmoved.  While clearly spoken, it did not leave me emotionally drained at the end.

It wasn’t Lithgow’s Lear — he did move me.  Clark Peters as the Earl of Gloucester and Steven Boyer as Lear’s fool also moved me.  The actors created characters you cared about.  But even Cordelia, played by Jessica Collins, left me unmoved.  Neither in the beginning nor the end was I invested in the character or her dilemma.


Jessica Hectt as Regan and Annette Bening as Goneril. Photo by Joan Marcus
Jessica Hectt as Regan and Annette Bening as Goneril. Photo by Joan Marcus

Annette Bening plays Goneril as a character who is so controlled that she seems more like an robot than a living, breathing person.  Is there any emotion beneath the surface?  I couldn’t find it.  Jessica Hecht goes to the other extreme as Regan.  This is a woman of many physical and vocal ticks, but again, it is hard to find the emotion.

King Lear has always seemed to me, to be the most “Greek” of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, and as such,  I anticipate catharsis.  Unfortunately in this production, despite the splendid work of John Lithgow and the production team,  it did not happen.

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